Guest Essay: Time Out of Time
I will continue the Rig Survey series next week.. Meanwhile I urge you to take a break from all things nautical, and join philosopher and gonzo naturalist Jacob Haverfeld, on an adventure in the Southwest.
How I spent my days at the Grand Canyon. Late March on the south rim is a cold place. We stopped for provisions in the town of Williams on the drive in, an hour away from the precipice of eroded time. It was a strange scene. Inside the car was a still-contained Mojave microclimate: zero moisture; dry-warm dusty air; arid and scented with sage. Upon opening the doors we were greeted to a blast of chilling winter wind, comparatively wet, though perhaps not by Pacific standards. Still, it was a shock. Ponderosa pine smell in the crisp air, snow on the ground and a howling, moist wind. The faces of people hurrying across a Safeway parking lot were wind-burned red, noses and ears bright and inflamed. Clearly half of everyone in town was suffering from some severe lingering bronchial infection. Everyone was coughing thickly. “Plague town” the place immediately became in my mind. I didn’t feel like lingering, and my mind dropped back in time to days of horse travel, and I pictured our short stay resulting in my companion Cassidy dropping my body into the cold rocky ground and erecting a crude and temporary monument before heading on down the trail.
We went when we did because our friend Emily was finishing up a job there, cooking for the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). The scene when we arrived was, I admit, less than I might have imagined. Perhaps because of having left one season and traveled “back in time” to a colder climate on the rim, there was an exaggerated sense of archaic human history. Primitive tent, freezing weather, and a strange 1850’s work-camp feel about the place. We ate with the group in the dark, huddled over our food, shifting on our feet in the cold. Talk was truncated the first night, partly by darkness and cold, though more by cultural clash than anything else. The SCA leaders and their flock of youth greatly resembled a kind of religious camp, with self-congratulatory and guilt-ridden environmental themes of salvation and purpose. Strange songs were sung, and conversation was riddled with a discomforting sense of unhumorous fundamentalism. Cassidy and I were as strange as two opposable thumbs. It was a “dry” camp, so we took our bottle of JB to the slightly warmer, tiled floor of the men’s room, and sang songs of the day’s travel.
The wind was altogether more entertaining. A sally to the rim before supper to catch sunset revealed a blasting updraft ripping through the woods. A conspiracy of ravens performed fantastic aerial feats together out in the vast empty space of the canyon. Spiraling downwards, thrown across the sky, traveling hundreds of meters upside-down down and backwards. One can only say laughing, for there really is no other word for what they were doing.
On a whim, Cassidy threw his hat over the cliff and we watched it sail briefly out over the abyss and then shoot upward, lofted by the updraft over our heads and tossed 80 yards behind us into the woods. For half an hour we completely forgot our cold in the manner of entertained children ― who can endure any temperature provided they are having a good time ― and threw everything we could find or break off over the cliff. Enormous pine branches as tall as I were thrown out into space, only to be rejected by the void, and against all comprehension flung upward 50 feet into the air to arc over our heads. This game was endlessly iterated until darkness. Naturally my hat ended up high in a tree. Small rocks thrown down into the canyon rose, miraculously and hilariously, and after stuttering in the wind were fired back at the thrower.
We spent two days down inside the canyon, where temperatures were much more pleasant and warm. We walked down trails that when seen from below defied reason. The making of them is very much in question as a logical undertaking. Flowers blooming, small silvery-green lizards skittering. The alien formations of yucca stalks. Exploration of old mines, we were informed by a small sign, was forbidden due to buildup of radon, a colorless, odorless gas – a natural but radioactive gas formed by the decay of radium. The ground was littered with strange green and blue and red rocks. Naturally bats lived there. A song about the restorative properties of Radium Springs was carried down the trail a ways.
Inside the chasm: Spotted Towhee; flock of bushtits; turkey vultures (wobble hawks); canyon wrens; rock wrens; Say’s Phoebes; black-throated sparrows; white-throated swifts; peregrine falcon.
On the rim: Western Bluebirds; white-breasted nuthatches foraging like small upside down ninjas; pygmy nuthatches; juniper titmice; gray-backed juncos; mountain chickadees; cayotes; ravens.
We camped on a high plateau about halfway down. Somewhere far above us the origins of mammals, somewhere in the most recent few layers of time high above. Roughly 2 billion years down to the bottom, down past the great unconformity, down past countless layers of silted deposits of ancient oceans and ancient life forms embedded in the rock.
We spent the day together and alone, wandering the rim, forming theories and conclusions, attempting to comprehend, and failing pleasantly each time, staring blankly or sleeping on warm rocks before rising to attempt comprehension again. At perhaps eleven at night, long after a very shadowed moon melded with the rim above us, after glassing the sky’s vastness with binoculars for a few hours and watching satellites traverse the cold sky, I wandered alone to the edge of the rim, and standing in the warm wind thought to call Piper. My cell phone sparked to life. The time was wrong: it read 12:00 a.m. which was unlikely. My eyes glanced over to the date and I was surprised to see that it read Jan. 6, which of course it was not, this being March. But as my eyes slid across the line of text I was still more shocked to encounter a complete reading of Jan 6, 1980 12:00 am. This was, I will say, briefly and staggeringly weird. On a sunny afternoon, perhaps standing on a sidewalk, surrounded by people and buildings, if a man looks down at his watch and it reads an incorrect time he is not much more than annoyed, and certainly is not thrown into a temporary dislocation of time and space whereby everything he knows suddenly falls away as if the appropriate time were the gravity holding everything together.
However, standing on stone deposited before the birth of mammals is another matter. Suspended, as it were almost floating in darkness, on a precipice of time, surrounded by lethal vertical vastness and stars, my tender human mind experienced an inexplicable plummet into space. I fell into the stars. For in that moment it was evident first that the person I hoped to call on my phone, by the phone’s telling of time, was not even born yet. And I was not even an idea in the minds of parents whose youth and location in the world I could not ascertain; they certainly wouldn’t know me yet. In fact, practically everyone I knew didn’t exist. “Cassidy,” I said, “can I show you something?”
I can tell you that the experience of time-travel is not at all like in the movies. Your first thought is not that you will accrue enormous wealth by betting on all the baseball games which haven’t been won yet, or the stocks which haven’t yet skyrocketed in value. In fact, money is pretty well a meaningless concept to someone who has just lost all reference points. Perhaps you would become a mystic, or more likely end up institutionalized. Traveling backwards in time to a place before your own birth is probably the closest thing I can think of to experiencing true impermanence and living to tell about it. You are cosmically alone. Free and unformed. A dim cloud of stars on a drifting trajectory, a bubble of spacious laughter and dust, all your friends and loved ones smiling conspiracies of stars themselves, timeless, without trouble. There is nothing to be saved, sadness a misperception of time and space itself.
Next time you see me ask to hear the sounds my phone plays when turned on or off; it will seal the story nicely for you (it hums a phosphorescent series of utterly alien alternating harmonic pitch changes and whispers “time, time, time” in a faint breathy female ethereal voice – I shit you not).
The above was part of a letter written by my dear friend Jacob Haverfield. You can see more of that letter in a previous post, .Difficult Feats, Pointless Tasks. Worth a look.
Also maybe worth a look: the last many month’s worth of essays and puzzles here on my Blog. I am so happy that our site stats indicate that we get a lot of binge readers.
The current rigging puzzle is called “Weird Wire,” and you can find it http://briontoss.com/index.php/2018/07/18/breaking-strength-2-weird-wire/.
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